Monday, August 17, 2015

Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942)

Warner Bros.
Director: Michael Curtiz

Academy Award for Best Sound Recording

Motion picture leading man James Cagney had starred in some of the greatest gangster films for the past decade entering the year 1942, but it would be his performance as a song and dance man in Yankee Doodle Dandy that would immortalize the man in the annuls of Academy Award history with his only win. It was perhaps because of the film’s exceedingly patriotic theme overall in the wake of the country’s entry into World War II that helped him achieve the honor, but all that aside the audience received one of America’s more lively and entertaining musicals with this biographical film about one very popular entertainer from the earlier part of the 20th century.

Yankee Doodle Dandy is a biographical musical about the life of George M. Cohan, a famous stage entertainer that left his mark on Broadway, set to the tones of his unashamed patriotic tones of his performances and songs. We follow the tale of George M. Cohan (James Cagney) from the days as a young son in a vaudevillian family and his aspirations of making more of himself on the stage. After unsuccessful hawking songs George joins forces with a struggling writer, Sam Harris (Richard Whorf), and for a prosperous team at producing musicals on Broadway. Along the way we experience George falling in love and marrying Mary (Joan Leslie), his sweetheart and his muse for some of his finest work. With his success George is able to care for his family, most notably his father (played by Walter Huston) out of respect for performance nurturing background. George retires, but is brought back to perform in yet another hit portraying President Franklin D. Roosevelt on Broadway.  The film concludes with a show of admiration for the showman as following Cohan’s opening performance as Roosevelt he is summoned to the White House where privately the President honors Cohan with the Congressional Medal of Honor.

The film has no qualms with be overtly patriotic, a clear result of the times in which the motion picture was produced, and does not feel drab in doing so. In this performance James Cagney has his chance to truly manfest the skills that he was truly best at, dancing, something many casual movie goers may not have known of the man who starred in the gangster classic The Public Enemy. Yankee Doodle Dandy is a fun, exaggerated tale of a famous entertainer of the past told in a way that allows for plenty of musical moments which play well with overall flow of the picture, as it sugar coats American patriotism in a classic rags to riches story.

Some myths state that James Cagney’s work on Yankee Doodle Dandy was nothing more than an attempt to proving his national pride when authorities were becoming suspicious of un-American acts by people of influence, such as actors or writers. Well, this was far from the truth as red-scare of Hollywood and McCarthyism would not take place until after WWII, when Americans could stop worrying about Nazis and began to worry about the idea of Communism becoming a true threat to the nation. Rather it was more likely that Cagney’s brother, William, who saw the life story of Cohan as a wonderful vehicle for his talented brother and pushed for Warner Bros. to pick of the rights to the man’s life story. The heightened patriotism within the picture which was already in place because of Cohan’s history as “Yankee Doodle” was perhaps further escalated because of the Pearl Harbor attacks that took place literally days into the films production, raising the awareness Americans were in need of national pride.

Cagney was a song and dance man long before he was a gangster actor.
While in production George M. Cohan gave some consulting advice with the film, but was of failing health at the time. He was however aware enough to hold on to important controlling decisions with the motion picture sharing his life story. With Cohan’s approval James Caney was cast in the lead role which supplied the Hollywood veteran with lone career Academy Award win as Best Actor of 1942. Cagney already contained within his style aspects of Cohan’s flair within his performing. While dancing Cagney attempted to mimic to his best ability the stiff, yet whimsical dancing style of Cohan, while singing in a half singing, half spoken word manner that Cohan was known for. During regular acting scenes Cagney would keep to his natural acting style which best suited the picture.

Director Michael Curtiz would not be one’s first thought in producing this picture as he was not known for musicals.  With a background in Errol Flynn action spectaculars and women centric pictures Curtiz has a fine eye to mix his work to entertain both male and female audiences. Here in this biographical musical he mixes the flowery performances of musicals with the sharp patriotism that the picture was aiming for at a time when Americans were high of devotion to country.

The film would impact audiences is great way in 1942 as the nation was still reeling from being attacked just months earlier. Up-with-America pictures were becoming a norm during this period, and this feature oozed it while serving a rather straight forward story, providing many happy musical segments, and wonderful dancing by Cagney.

That year the film would be nominated for seven Academy Awards, including a nomination for Best Picture, and came away with three wins: Best Actor (Cagney), Best Musical Score, and Best Sound. Through the years American critics and historians have honored the picture with naming the film to many top all-time lists, appearing on several American Film Institute lists, including for musicals, inspirational films, and best American films of all time. As a musical Americans have listed it amongst one of the best, perhaps for being a product of a time when commitment to country was at an all-time high. Contemporary audiences and historians have continued to praise the picture for its significance in time and for James Cagney’s performance.

"... and I thank you."
For the casual movie watcher this motion picture would come off as just another musical, and yet another film feeding off the “yay America” themes of movies from the period surrounding WWII, yet it is much more. For once we get to see James Cagney as a song and dance man, his true self as an entertainer, far beyond his tough gangster performances. Yes the film is a Hollywood-ized tale of one man’s life that overlooks facts and sugar coats happy feeling throughout, but it makes up for pure entertainment, which is the reason for the picture at a time when morale was needed in the nation. In the period of Cohan’s failing health he would be able to see the motion picture premiere a short time before his death and approved of the film’s result, as would most Americans of that time and for years to come.

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